BOZEMAN — Jabarri Johnson holds up his prodigious hands — the wide palms, the long fingers — and it becomes abundantly clear what makes him such a threat in Montana State’s passing game.
On game day, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Johnson wears triple-extra-large gloves, and any football thrown his way will probably be caught.
Since he arrived on campus this summer as a transfer wide receiver from American River College in California, MSU’s coaches have raved about the strength of Johnson hands. He showed glimpses of it during fall camp by making a slew of impressive one-handed catches.
Yet injuries — a pulled quadriceps and a hip ailment — forced Johnson to miss roughly three weeks of preseason practice. The reason he came to Montana State was to make an immediate impact, but hobbling around the sideline on crutches was not in his plans.
“It was super frustrating. I knew I hadn’t proven anything yet,” said Johnson, who sat out both of the Bobcats’ fall scrimmages. “I know what I’m capable of, but I wasn’t sure all the coaches knew.
“I practiced a few times but I didn’t get a chance to showcase what I’ve got. I thought that would hurt me and my playing time.”
His thinking was erroneous. After three games, Johnson has proven to be a big-time, big-bodied performer. And quarterback Chris Murray and Montana State’s offense are better for it.
Johnson had a huge game in Week 2 against South Dakota State, catching eight passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-27 loss. Last week at North Dakota, Johnson caught a 13-yard touchdown in the first half on a back-shoulder throw from Murray as the Bobcats built a three-touchdown lead on the way to a 49-21 victory.
It was a classic play for a physical wideout like Johnson, and he snared the ball out of the air with his firm and robust hands. The defense didn’t have a chance.
“Being a big receiver, I feel like that’s one of the things people expect out of me,” Johnson said. “I take pride in being good at the jump balls and the 50/50 balls. I’m 6-4, and if you have a 6-4 receiver you want to be able to throw it up and have him make a play and out-physical the defense and compete for the ball. I feel like that’s one of the better things that I do.”
“It just gives you great confidence, especially the type of threat he is in the red zone,” Murray said. “Once he sees the ball and locates it, he just goes up and gets it. Once he does, it’s pretty hard to fight the ball (away) from him.”
Murray gives credit where it’s due, and singled out the wide receiver corps and assistant coach Matt Miller as being the one MSU position group that has improved the most from last season. With Murray and his pass-catchers finally on the same wavelength after a trying 2016 campaign, the Bobcats’ offense has become a multidimensional force.
Through three games, Murray has thrown for 513 yards and seven touchdowns. He had just 778 yards and six TDs all of last season.
Johnson’s arrival undoubtedly galvanized fellow receivers Mitch Herbert and Kevin Kassis by raising the level of competition. It’s paying off on the field: That trio has combined for 44 receptions so far. Murray has grown, too.
“I just feel like he’s playing with confidence. He’s just letting it all hang out. He has faith in our receivers,” Johnson said of Murray. “He tells us all the time that he’s not afraid to throw it up to me or ‘Herbie’ and let us make a play. I don’t really know how bad he struggled last year, but this year he’s been pretty consistent.”
This is Johnson’s second go-round in the Big Sky Conference. He spent two years at Sacramento State, where his only pass reception during the 2015 season went for a touchdown.
But Johnson was stuck on the depth chart behind Sac State veterans Shane Harrison and Nnamdi Agude. Pining for more opportunity, he transferred to American River before last season and had nearly 300 yards receiving as the Beavers made it all the way to the California Community College Athletic Association championship game.
Johnson didn’t play football until his senior year at Franklin High School in Elk Grove, California — he was a basketball player until he shot up six inches in height between his sophomore and junior year. It was then he knew he might have a future in football.
“My sophomore year I was 5-8, and my junior year I was 6-2,” Johnson said. “The coaches started to talk to me my junior year for football, but I never got into it. I kind of stuck to basketball. But my senior year I just decided to do it because they’d been bugging me about it the whole time. It was just like, ‘Why not?’ I didn’t really expect much out of it, but I’m glad I did it.”
Coming out of American River, Johnson had two Division I offers — Montana State and Sacred Heart, an FCS team in the Northeast Conference.
It didn’t take long for Johnson to make his decision.
“This was the place that had the best fan support. I wanted to play in front of a lot of fans where football is a big thing,” he said. “I wanted to have an immediate impact. I’m a junior, so I wanted to be one of the keys on the offense as soon as I got here. I just wanted to make plays and make sure I was a valuable part of the offense.”
Johnson and MSU, coming off the win at North Dakota, are gearing up to face Big Sky rival Weber State on Saturday at Bobcat Stadium. The Wildcats, under fourth-year coach Jay Hill, are the 20th-ranked team in the nation.
Johnson and the rest of the offense look to continue their momentum from last week, when they put up 515 yards and scored seven touchdowns.
“We’re going in there with a strike-first mentality,” he said. “We know Weber likes to start fast. We’re going to have to match that tempo and try to get on the scoreboard quickly.”